‘The ice is three feet thick’: 1980’s China and politics today

Image of ice sculpture China

We interrogate the past in order to illuminate the present, and the study of modern Chinese history should help us to understand the present condition of China at a time of crisis. How did it happen that China’s political culture silenced a doctor seeking to draw attention to an emerging pandemic? How does it happen that – months after the doctor has died and been given belated heroic status – ordinary Chinese citizens were still being pursued and silenced for questioning the handling of Covid-19?

There is no need for conspiracy theories to show that crucial time was lost when it emerged in Wuhan. A more open society in which dissent was tolerated would have responded in a more timely way, to the advantage of the Chinese people and the world community. The fact that other nations subsequently mishandled the threat does not obviate the need to ask where and why China has gone wrong.  Also on our minds should be the plight of Hong Kong, where the fragile autonomy under One Country Two Systems has been undermined by Beijing in a heavy-handed way.

The rich history of that decade has been obscured by the terrible way it ended in June 1989. There are some excellent surveys of speeches and writings covering the period in full or in part (eg Seeds of Fire, 1989 by Geremie Barmé and John Minford), but the only work to examine comprehensively the ideas of the 1980s remains that of Merle Goldman (Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China, 1994). When the political scientist Su Shaozhi, who had played such a large part in the intellectual debates, died in 2019, this attracted no attention except for a Guardian obituary (by this writer).

Three features of the reform movement of the 1980s should impress us: the extent to which it was officially endorsed, the breadth of the arguments explored and, towards the end, the range of social participation. The backing from the highest party level, although not uncontested, has never since been replicated. This is not to devalue the efforts of a network of semi-retired officials and academics in the 1990s and early 2000s to present the democratic case, but the response was at best ambiguous and more often negative.

The brave academics, lawyers and human rights activists who have spoken up in recent years have met far worse treatment. A starting point for this earlier period is the People’s Daily commentary of 21 December 1978 titled “Long Live the People”. This lengthy document went much further than simply to rehabilitate the April 5th Movement of 1976 against the Gang of Four:  it legitimised the concept of spontaneous popular action un-sanctioned from above.  Some Party leaders, it declared, “still don’t understand what socialist democracy means, and they panic when the people’s democratic spirit reaches a high tide.”

As a journalist reporting from China throughout the 1980s, I was sometimes told by foreign diplomats and fellow-journalists that Democracy Wall and what came after were admirable in spirit but lacking in coherence: “They don’t know what they want”, it was said of the students in Tiananmen Square. Yet given the ideological strait-jacket in which young Chinese students and workers had been brought up, the scope of their critique was remarkable. In 1978-79, the posters on Democracy Wall included not only powerful exposes of Party brutality and corruption, but a broader search for alternative truth. The essay by Wei Jingsheng on democracy as the “fifth modernisation” is the best known but far from the only example.

While this first phase of grass-roots argument was suppressed with the arrest of Wei and others and closure of the Wall, the reform-minded scholars assembled by Hu Yaobang – with qualified approval from Deng Xiaoping – deepened both the critique and the quest for alternatives. Su Shaozhi, Wang Ruoshui, Li Honglin, Wang Guangyuan and others examined the persistence of feudal autocracy resulting in political and social alienation, and argued that class divisions in society had been replaced by a more complex pattern of interest groups. They called for unorthodox opinion and ideological pluralism to be encouraged. They argued for the separation of powers to enable a genuine rule of law, for the reform of state institutions, and for various forms of democracy up to the level of universal suffrage. Although some of this went too far for Hu, and more so for Deng, their articles were published in mainstream newspapers and journals that had a distinct “pro-reform” identity.  After 1989 this phenomenon of a relatively open media would only re-occur in some limited muck-raking journalism around the turn of the century.

We know what happened in June 1989, but the question why still calls for more discussion. Was it just that the students “went too far” and were too disorganised to accept compromise? Was there a possibility that the “moderate” voices of Zhao Ziyang and perhaps Wan Li would prevail, and why did they not succeed?  Or was the tripartite coalition in 1989 of progressive workers and students, reformist scholars and (often overlooked) the shimin or ordinary people of Beijing a combined threat to the established order which the Party would never tolerate. A broader question is whether the political culture of the CCP, whether in a more or less “liberal” mode, could ever accommodate the essential demands of the democratic case. The answers to all these questions may assume a new relevance if the current repressive regime of Xi Jinping is weakened by the coronavirus to the point where there is a revival of popular protest.

The ice in Hong Kong is also three feet thick, and the 1980s help to explain its formation too. In the Sino-British negotiations leading up to the 1984 Joint Declaration, neither side was too concerned with Hong Kong opinion. This was emerging through the new “pressure groups”, particularly the Hong Kong Observers which included young lawyers, educators, journalists, doctors, and business executives. Although the Foreign Office in London paid some attention to their arguments, they were harassed by the Hong Kong Special Branch, and regarded (as I discovered in interviews at the time) with open contempt by Hong Kong officials. British negotiators then and through the 1990s would also speak dismissively of local opinion.

Beijing took no account either of the views of the Hong Kong Chinese elite. In a crucial meeting in June 1984 with Executive Council members Lydia Dunn and S Y Chung and others, Deng Xiaoping made it very clear that the people of Hong Kong had no role in the negotiations. “We are going to resolve things with the British; we will brook no interference from other”, he told them. “In the past, there was some talk about a ‘three-legged stool’. There are two legs, not three” (quoted by Lee Yee in the China Heritage blog, 2020). This was when the ice began to form that has frozen so deeply – and now the stool only has one leg.

The political narrative of the 1980s is no longer so vivid as it once was, and yet what could have happened, and why it did not happen, are questions that when addressed will help us to understand better the problematic China of Xi Jinping today.

John Gittings is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute.

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